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Architects do it with models: the history of architecture in 16 models

From a generator of ideas or a communication tool to a miniature utopia, the rich history of architectural models shows how they have developed with methods and technologies


Architectural Model found in Gumelnita (now Bulgaria), 4600BC

Many ancient civilisations created architectural models or maquettes, often not to investigate building techniques but rather to use as gifts or place in tombs. This unusual fired clay model was discovered in the Danube valley and is thought to have been created by a people ahead of their time both artistically and technologically.


Florence Cathedral Dome by Filippo Brunelleschi 15th century

Creating a physical model was the only way Filippo Brunelleschi could easily guide his craftsmen in the construction of the dome for Florence Cathedral - a model he deliberately left incomplete to ensure his control over the dome as it was built.

Many models built for Florence Cathedral were for this purpose of verification and control, making sure that what was to be built had been tested beforehand. It was much later that the objectification of these models gave them a new form of beauty.

Gaudi Arches

Catenary Arch Models by Antoni Gaudí, 19th-20th century

Gaudí’s catenary arch models are a unique example of evocative low-tech architectural problem solving. His funicular chain and lead-shot bag experiments let gravity determine the form of a catenary arch — for Gaudí the ideal structural element — which could then be photographed and inverted to gain an understanding of the forces at work.

These models would sometimes be as large as 1:10 which, once photographed and traced over, would form the entire basis for the rest of the design.


Tatlin’s Tower, various, 1919-20

The Monument to the Third International, better known as Tatlin’s Tower, is one of the 20th century’s most enduring unrealised projects. The tower was to be a spiralling ode to modernity and revolution built in iron, steel and glass that would challenge the Eiffel Tower. Wrapped in this steel spiral were geometric structures, each one rotating at different speeds. It is no wonder there were great doubts about its structural practicality let alone the cost of materials. Nonetheless, the models of Tatlin’s Tower serve as a reminder of the ambition and spirit of the age.

Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and the Pompidou Centre all have a model, and in 2011 the Royal Academy built a 1:40 scale model for the exhibition Re-Building Tatlin’s Tower. Each of the many representations only has two source drawings and Vladimir Tatlin’s models and notes to work from, making the construction process itself an attempt to capture the essence of the famous side elevation.


Liverpool Cathedral by Edwin Lutyens, 1930s

One of the most sophisticated architectural models ever made in Britain, Lutyens’ unbuilt design for Liverpool Cathedral would have swamped St Paul’s. Shown at the Royal Academy in 1933 to wide acclaim, the model demonstrates in great detail the sheer ambition and scale of Lutyens’ design, of which only the crypts were ever constructed, and is now displayed at the Museum of Liverpool.

This is not the only ambitious model Lutyens created; while planning an extension to Castle Drogo a full scale wooden mock-up was created, only to be blown away into the Devonshire countryside.

Cluster in the Air

Clusters in the Air by Arata Isozaki, 1960-62

The Japanese Metabolist architect Arata Isozaki developed his new housing structure for Tokyo in the 1960s. Like leaves on a tree, the modular housing units branch off from structural ‘trunks’. The ambitious and revolutionary ideas of the Metabolists, despite their exposure, remain largely confined to theoretical works, with drawings and models serving as the only way of depicting such radical concepts.

With built examples of Metabolism like the Nakagin Capsule Tower in a state of decay, the group’s utopian models are a reminder of the scale of their vision.

CDG Terminal

Terminal 1, Charles de Gaulle Airport by Paul Andreu, 1967-74

Paul Andreu’s octopus inspired design for Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle airport - despite looking like a Death Star on legs - depicts a distorted, almost fish-eye view of the terminal.

A flat concrete drum sits on top with a suspended, tangled maze of covered escalators beneath. Considering the finished building’s defects, the model becomes a fetishised version of Andreu’s vision; the depth and presence of the central core is amplified while the terminal’s seven satellite structures are seemingly omitted.


Capsule Houses by Wolfgang Döring, 1969

Although this model may look like the work of the Japanese Metabolists, it is the work of German architect Wolfgang Döring. Without its architectural context this model could easily be mistaken for a stack of toys, but knowing that each block represents a dwelling makes it distinctly utopian. Each pod can be detached and ‘upgraded’ in order to cater for a constantly developing society.


Tensegrity Sphere by Buckminster Fuller, 1979

Buckminster Fuller would have had the whole planet housed in his strong, economic geodesic domes. For Fuller, models were invaluable for prototyping domes and other inventions like the tensegrity sphere, both practical experiments and depictions of another world.

Fuller proposed that his Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Stations (STARS) could be up to a mile in diameter and full of hot air, floating in the Earth’s atmosphere. While the Metabolists modelled entire utopian cities, Fuller felt confident enough modelling a single scalable component and leaving the rest to the imagination.


Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, 1961

Despite being a competition winner, Jørn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House could originally not be built due to the roof forms being considered structurally unsound. To prove the proposal, Utzon created a simple wooden model to demonstrate the solution to engineering the ‘shells’ that would form the roof from the surface of a sphere.

This basic model was all that was needed to prove that the building’s segments could be calculated, and therefore prefabricated. This low-tech solution to what appeared a complex structural problem is reminiscent of Gaudí’s catenary arch experiments, and the power of even the simplest model to reinforce and even save a design proposal.


Architectural Sculptures by Santiago Calatrava, 2005

For Calatrava, architecture combines all of the arts into one, and his sculptures often incite the interesting debate over whether they can be called ‘art’ as opposed to ‘architectural’ experiments. The minimal sculptures share much formal flare with his buildings, the above reminiscent of Malmo’s Turning Torso and Calatrava’s stacked cube theme.

Lego towers

Lego Towers by Bjarke Ingels Group, 2007

As part of the BIG City exhibition in New York, Bjarke Ingels Group produced a 1:50 model entirely out of Lego. The project, ‘Lego Towers’, was a proposal for a mixed-use development in Copenhagen. Using modular units of four glass walls and a grass roof, Lego Towers takes the form of a sweeping, contoured urban space into which a hotel, retail and residential space is fully integrated.

Ingels describes Lego as a 3D sketch tool, praising what he calls its ‘systematic creativity’. BIG’s model serves as a justification of Lego as a serious design tool, while retaining its characteristic playfulness.

CJ Lim Cake

Dream Isle by CJ Lim, 2008

A commission for an exhibition at Tokyo’s Nanyodo Gallery, CJ Lim’s Dream Isle imagines London atop a sponge cake alongside two cups of tea - a purely theoretical architectural model. ‘The city is forever on the brink of the strangely familiar and the familiarly strange’, states Lim, describing his creation as ‘London’s dream’. Recognisable landmarks and features are shifted and distorted atop the spongy earth and teacups, a reference to London’s history of colonial trade and the sound network created by London’s 16th century thoroughfares.


The Church of Perpetual Experimentation by Adam Nathaniel Furman, 2008

Founder of Madam Studio, Adam Furman’s vivid and bizzare 3D printed models combine bright, psychedelic pop imagery with classical forms. The results are at times unsettling, but emblematic of a fascination with modern fabrication techniques and their effect on identity and visual exploration.

Co-director of research group Saturated Space, which explores the relationship between colour and architecture, Furman’s recent residency at the Design Museum in London explored 3D printed ceramics covered with vibrant, colourful patterns.


The Kolumba, Cologne by Peter Zumthor, 2012

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor places great emphasis on craftsmanship and the way in which things are made, his practice rarely using sketches preferring models instead. Zumthor’s design process often makes extensive use of inhabitable large scale models, letting him verify a project’s atmospheric and material qualities.


ProtoHouse by Softkill Design, 2012

Designed to test the potential of Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), the ProtoHouse was developed by the AA’s Design Research Lab. Using algorithms that micro-organise printed material, the model represents a house that would be printed from nylon and based on bone structures, forming a spider web of tangled material. This is model making purely to test the limits of technologies and uncover the design possibilities they create. No longer simply experiments to verify what will be built, models now challenge the very machines that create them.


What next?

A video demonstration of MIT Projects’ inFORM dynamic shape display

While the humble architectural model still has its use and place, rapid advancements in technology have begun to challenge aspects beyond the static, physical representation of architecture. 3D printing can now create vastly complex shapes and spaces, but they remain, for the most part, static physicalisations of 3D drawings.

Touchable virtual reality has been in development for years and although not mainstream yet, seems tantalisingly close. Meanwhile inFORM, the dynamic shape display from MIT, suggests how physical interaction in real time with digital data is possible, eliminating the digital creation/physical reproduction cycle of 3D printing and blurring the two together. With these technologies the architectural model would become a highly accurate by-product of an entirely dynamic design process, updating in real time according to a project’s parameters.

Rather than small, frozen utopias, the models of the future look set to be interactive worlds in their own right.

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